INTERVIEWS / AUG. 21, 2016
version 8, draft 8

10 Questions Hiring Managers Ask During Reference Checks

Business woman asking a question

Reference checks may not be the best part of the hiring process but they need to happen if you want to get the job. Here’s everything you need to know.

Reference or background checks is when the hiring manager contacts anyone you’ve listed in the reference section of your CV and asks them questions about your past work experience. Sometimes, companies who are serious about recruiting top talent will even hire an external company to do the background checks as they want to ensure that the candidate is everything they say they are.

For the job seeker, reference checks can be stressful as he or she is completely left out and has no way of intervening with the process. However, that’s not entirely true as knowing what might be discussed about you could help you prepare for it. Ideally, you’ll be able to talk to your references about the process and ask them to highlight some qualities you think could help the hiring manager make a decision in your favour. But even if you can’t ask that sort of thing from your previous employer, knowing what the hiring manager will ask during the reference check can help you during the job interview.

For hiring managers, on the other hand, a reference check can be an efficient way to confirm everything the job seeker has told them about themselves and to ensure that they’ll be hiring the best of the best. But that’s not the only reason why hiring managers conduct reference checks.

Why Do Hiring Managers Conduct Reference Checks?

Reference checks have now become an integral part of the hiring process and they are a routine part of a job application. In fact, almost all organisations and companies use reference checks these days. Some companies conduct more intense background checks and you should expect such a reference check if you’re applying to a company that is one of the big players in the industry.

Even though reference checks seem stressful, you should rejoice when a hiring manager asks you for the details of your references as it means that they’re thinking of hiring you and they just want to be thorough. So, if you have no reason to worry about what the previous employer might tell them, you can start celebrating.

Having said that, it’s true that not everyone leaves jobs in the best of terms, and you might have reason to believe that your previous employer will take the opportunity to badmouth you, but if you’ve been honest with the hiring manager and you’ve taken the right steps during the job interview to ensure that the hiring manager likes you, you have no reason to worry.

Your Best Bet Is to Be Upfront

If there’s anything in your background that you are worried about, whether that’s a criminal record or a failure in a previous position, it’s best to tackle this issue during the job interview. Being the first one to mention the issue gives you the power to shape the narrative and I’m sure you know that how you tell a story can shape the other person’s perspective. So, don’t let the hiring manager find out about anything you’re not particularly proud of from someone else. Own it, and you will be able to shape the hiring manager’s opinion on the matter.

On the other hand, if you have nothing to worry about and are certain that your references will give glowing reviews about your character and your past work performance, try and see if you can get them to highlight some qualities you think you weren’t able to talk about during the job interview. So, for example, if you weren’t able to discuss your communication skills in the job interview and have reason to believe that the hiring manager might be concerned about this issue, ask your references to mention it.

Of course, this can easily backfire, so make sure that you only ask this of people with whom you are on friendly terms. Also, make sure that you don’t give them a script that they should recite to the hiring manager; simply ask them to mention a couple of things you think could help your job application move forward.

If, however, you are not confident about asking any of your references to highlight your qualities, it’s best that you don’t. It does not mean that the game is lost, though; it just means that you should rely on yourself to impress the hiring manager by addressing some of the issues that might concern him. The 10 questions posed below aim to help you do that – remember that by knowing what the hiring manager will ask your references can help you determine what to tell them.

1. What Is Your Relationship to the Candidate?

hipster with computer

This question allows the hiring manager to confirm that you worked with this person at some point, while it also enables them to get an understanding of what your relationship was like with that person. For example, if the person being asked is a previous colleague of yours, it will allow the hiring manager to confirm that you were with Company X at some point and it will also help them get a glimpse of whether you’re a team person and you get along with your colleagues.

2. Can You Confirm the Candidate’s Job Title, Dates of Employment, and Work Responsibilities?

Many people tend to exaggerate about their previous job titles on their CV, or the duration of a previous position. And sure, saying that you were with a company for a year instead of just a few months does sound better and it does make you look more experienced, but it’s not truthful and you should never lie on your CV as this will get discovered – and once it does, it will be a blow on your credibility.

Similarly, you should be honest about your work responsibilities. I get that you might think it’s better if you exaggerate a bit and come out more experienced, but the reality is that your former boss is not going to lie for you, so be honest. Even if the truth doesn’t come out until you’re in the company and you have no idea how to do a certain thing, you still shouldn’t lie as it could hurt your chances of getting ahead in the company.

3. Can You Tell Me About the Candidate’s Work Performance?

business phone

I know that out of all the people in the world, your former boss is probably the last person you want to answer this question and, hopefully, the hiring manager will be asking the same question to previous colleagues, but the reality is that it’s your previous boss’ opinion that counts the most, because he or she is the best person to judge whether you were successful in the job they hired you to do.

And it’s for this very question that people will often tell you to not burn bridges and to maintain a good relationship with your last boss no matter what.

The reason why this question is so important is because your past performance is a good indicator of your potential, and although you could be a completely be a different person now, hiring managers rely on facts. Therefore, if you have reason to believe that your previous boss will say that you performed poorly, it’s a good idea to let the hiring manager know during your job interview that you were not up to par in your previous position. Explain why and let them know how and why things will be different in this position. By doing so, you eliminate the power of your last boss to hurt your chances and you help the hiring manager focus on other things that you think can help you get the job.

4. What Are the Candidate’s Strengths and Weaknesses?

Another important question that your references will be asked is about your strengths and weaknesses. And this means that anything you tend to do in the workplace that an employer might frown upon will get out.

Since you can’t turn back the hands of time and be a top performer at work with no weaknesses to speak of, you can minimise the impact of your weaknesses by informing the hiring manager about them during your job interview. So if, for example, you tend to get overly anxious and stressed, be upfront about it during the job interview and explain what you’ll be doing to avoid this in the future.

As far as your strengths are concerned, you want your reference to tell the hiring manager about those qualities that could help you get the job. So, if there are any qualities that the hiring manager kept going back to during the job interview, or if there was anything in the job description that was stressed, you might want to talk to your reference about them and see if they’d be willing to prioritise those qualities.

5. What Was it Like to Work with Them?


Whether your personality should come into the mix when you are applying for a job is debatable, but the truth is that it often comes into the mix, so you should deal with it. Make sure that the hiring manager knows beforehand what you are like as a person so that it does not come as a surprise to them when your past employer or colleagues tell him or her that you were always an introvert, as this might put them off you a bit.

Make sure that you prepare the hiring manager during the job interview for anything they might hear during the reference check, and you’ll be able to increase your chances of getting hired.

6. Why Did the Candidate Leave the Position?

This question can help the hiring manager understand your motives. If you left because you wanted to make a career change, for example, you are going to come across as someone who’s eager to work in this new industry. If, on the other hand, your last boss tells him or her that you left because you were interested in a bigger compensation, it might help the hiring manager understand where you stand salary-wise, especially if you haven’t discussed money yet.

7. Would You Rehire the Candidate?

job interview

Obviously, your last boss wouldn’t rehire you, but their attitude towards you and your work performance could help a hiring manager who’s having trouble making a decision push them towards your direction.

Although there isn’t much you can do if your last boss says that he or she wouldn’t rehire you, you can ensure during the job interview that you stress how motivated you’d be at this position and why, ultimately, it’s the best position for you.

8. Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

This question gives the hiring manager the opportunity to find out anything you might have hoped wouldn’t come up. From raiding the supply closet every now and then to getting to work late on a regular basis, these are all things that can come up if the hiring manager asks this.

Your safest bet is to fess up to everything during the job interview (not to stealing from the supply closet, obviously) and go through any changes you’ve made in your life that will help you prevent you from repeating your past mistakes.

For example, if you used to get to work late, you can explain that punctuality was an issue during your previous employment but that it was only so because you weren’t motivated to get to work and that you have now begun seeing life from a different perspective.

9. What Has this Person Been Searching in Previous Jobs?

young man with phone

This question will enable the person being asked, whether it’s your last boss or past colleagues, to really think about what motivates you in the work environment. This means that the person being asked will need to go over what made you excited in the workplace in the past and what made you want to go to work every day.

And although you may think that, in order to convince the hiring manager that you are the ideal person for the job, you could use this question to your benefit by coaching or giving your references a script, I’d strongly advice against it as hiring managers are always able to tell who’s just repeating what they’ve been told to say and, needless to say, that this never works to the candidate’s advantage.

10. How Would You Describe His or Her Interpersonal Skills?

Ultimately, the hiring manager is looking for someone to fit the company culture, and the way in which you’ve handled relationships with people in your last workplace can be a strong indicator to whether you are going to fit in with the company culture.

If you’ve handled your interpersonal relationships in way that you are not proud of, make sure that, during the job interview, you explain that you’re eager to get to know the people in the company because from the little research you’ve done, it seems like they might be your crowd.

To sum up, you might not be able to control the process of reference checks, but you are able to control the narrative and so long as you play your cards right in the job interview, the hiring manager will hear nothing that will surprise him or her during the reference check.

Do you know of any other questions hiring managers tend to ask during the reference check? Share them with us in the comment section below.

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